Monday, May 30, 2011

REVIEW: Dork Diaries (Book One)

Russell, R.R.  (2009).  Dork Diaries:  Tales from a not-so-fabulous life.  New York:  Aladdin.

282 pages.

Appetizer:  Nikki has just started attending Westchester Country Day on scholarship and she wants nothing more than to fit in with the popular mean girl MacKenzie and her friends.  But how?  Would an iPhone or winning an art prize get her invited to MacKenzie's birthday party?  Nikki struggles through middle school, hoping to find the key to popularity and happiness.

As I was reading Dork Diaries, it was hard not to compare it to The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  Both are focused on the experiences of middle school, one from a boy's perspective (DoaWK) and one from a girl's (DD), both use illustrations (although DoaWK's are more central to the story), both feature superficially-minded selfish characters, but while I can't help but occasionally chuckle at the content of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Dork Diaries left me silent, not very amused, and from time to time wondering wtf.  One of my "WTF?" moments was this passage:

"The most important lesson I learned last year was that having a CRUDDY phone--or NONE at all--can totally RUIN your social life.  While hordes of celebrity party girls regularly FORGET to wear undies, not a single one would be caught dead without her cell phone.  Which was why I was nagging my mom about buying me an iPhone" (p. 4).
WTF?  What am I supposed to think about that?   I get that this is meant in jest...but I just don't find it funny.  There were a few other attempted jokes like that throughout the book.

I did appreciate the tension over Nikki's desire to belong and to find true friends.  I also appreciated Nikki's embarrassment by her father's van.  That also felt very real to the age.

Overall, I wasn't that impressed with Dork Diaries.  Nikki's conflicts with MacKenzie and her attraction to Brandon felt pretty typical of middle grade/tween/young-young adult romance books.  The story did end on a positive note...which is also typical of this type of book.

Since the illustrations didn't add to much to the story over all, I was just left feeling like Louise Rennison's Angus Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging was a much more entertaining diary series (although for a potentially slightly older age group).

Dinner Conversation:

"Sometimes I wonder if my mom is BRAIN DEAD.  Then there are days when I know she is.
Like today.
The drama started this morning when I casually asked if she would buy me one of those cool new iPhones that do almost everything.  I considered it a necessity of life, second only to maybe oxygen.
What better way to clinch a spot in the CCP (Cute, Cool & Popular) group at my new private school, Westchester Country Day, than by dazzling them with a wicked new cell" (p. 1).

"Absolutely no one writes their most intimate feelings and deep, dark secrets in a diary anymore!  WHY?!
Because just one or two people knowing all your BIZ could completely ruin your reputation.
You're supposed to post this kind of juicy stuff online in you BLOG so MILLIONS can read it!!!
Only a TOTAL DORK would be caught WRITING in a DIARY!!" (pp. 7-8).

"This morning the halls were plastered with colorful posters for Random Acts of Avant-Garde Art, our annual school art show.
I'm SUPERexcited because the first prize for each class is $500, cash!  SWEET!
That would be enough for me to buy a cell phone, a new outfit from the mall, AND art supplies.
But most important, winning that award could transform me from a "socially challenged ART DORK" to a "socially charmed ART DIVA" practically overnight!" (p. 46).

"When the office assistant asked if I was there to pick up an entry form for the avant-garde art show, I just froze and started clucking like a hen:
Buk, buk, buk-ka-a-ah!
Then, MacKenzie laughed, like ME entering the competition was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.
That's when I spotted the yellow sign-up sheet for library shelving assistants, also known as LSAs.  Every day during study hall, a few kids get excused to go to the school library to shelve books.  An LSA's life is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
So, instead of trying to achieve my dream of winning a major art competition, I very STUPIDLY signed up to shelve DUSTY and BORING LIBRARY BOOKS!" (p. 48-49).

Tasty Rating:  !!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

REVIEW: The Emerald Atlas (Book One of The Books of Beginning Series)

Stephens, J.  (2011).  The Emerald Atlas.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

417 pages.

Appetizer:  When Kate was four-years-old, her mother woke her to inform her that she had to watch over her baby brother and sister, Michael and Emma.  That night her parents disappeared with a stranger and have never returned.

Ten years later, Kate and her siblings (now eleven and twelve-years-old) are shuffled from orphanage to worse orphanage, asserting that their parents are still out there, somewhere.  When one last adoptive parent is deemed unacceptable by the siblings, they are sent to one final orphanage in upstate New York, in a town called Cambridge Falls.  It doesn't take them long to realize there's something strange about their new home.  First, they're not only the only children at the orphanage, but they're the only children in the town.

As they explore their new home, the siblings find a strange room, and in it a strange book.  A photo album that, when a photo is placed upon it, sends the children to the time and place the photo was taken. The siblings learn that Cambridge Falls has a dark past, an evil Countess/witch who is holding the town hostage as she searches for something.  Realizing the danger, the siblings try to escape to their own time, but accidentally leave Michael behind.  Kate, who had promised to keep him and Emma safe, knows that she must rescue her brother and find a way to save the town.

Some reviewers have compared The Emerald Atlas to Harry Potter.  From the first few pages, I definitely picked up on an HP vibe.  But instead of Harry being left on a stoop of his family members, Kate's parents are the one leaving her and her siblings.  Instead of McGonagall and Dumbledore having a conversation about how extraordinary he is over a sleeping baby Harry, a seemingly wise, old shadowy man and her parents have a conversation about the the children's destiny outside of Kate's bedroom.  And instead of pronouncing Tomato as tomato, I will now be pronouncing it toMAto.

Also, the Dr. Pym character feeeeeels eerily similar to Dumbledore, knowing impossible things and being ridiculously wise.  (What is it about having god-like old people in children's literature?  Sure, I get that it's an archetype and I'm all for respecting elders, but sometimes Granny Relda from the Grimm Sisters series, Dumbledore and this Dr. Pym seem more than human.)

Focus brain.

There's also a friendly giant in The Emerald Atlas who lives in a cabin.  Although, he's nothing compared to Hagrid.

But that's enough of comparison talk.  The Emerald Atlas does hold its own as being an engaging story.  There were a lot of great suspenseful moment, like when the siblings were fleeing from starved wolves.  I really loved Emma.  She was tough and made a lot of humorous comments.  Here's one from when the siblings learn about some of the Countess's henchmen, the Screechers:
"Morum cadi, the deathless warriors,"  the Countess said.  "Though I admit Screecher is a fitting name.  They were men, hundreds of years ago.  But they traded their souls for power and eternal life.  Which they were granted, of a sort."   
"They're not so bad," Emma said.  "Mostly smell is all." (p. 104)
And as far as villains go, the Countess is pretty awesome as well.  She's twisted and funny.  Kind of like Sue Sylvester from Glee, but less vicious.  One of my favorite quotations from her was:
"When I married the Count, everyone said he had no more than six months to live.  I don't need to tell you I didn't plan on allowing him even that long.  But wasn't it just like the old mule to creak on for nearly a year?  Honestly, he must have survived a half dozen attempts to poison him.  Never marry a finicky eater, my dears.  Nothing but trouble." (p. 100)
I'm not certain The Emerald Atlas deserves all of the hype it is receiving.  But it is definitely an entertaining fantasy to keep in mind as a book recommendation.

Dinner Conversation:

"The girl was shaken awake.  Her mother was leaning over her.
"Kate"--her voice was low and urgent--"listen very closely.  I need you to do something for me.  I need you to keep your brother and sister safe.  Do you understand?  I need you to keep Michael and Emma safe."  (p. 1)

"The girl's heart was hammering in her chest, and she had opened her mouth to ask what was happening when a man appeared in the doorway.  The light was behind him, so Kate couldn't see his face, but he was tall and thin and waring a long overcoat and what looked like a very rumpled hat.
"It's time," he said.
His voice and that image--the tall man silhouetted in the doorway--would haunt Kate for years, as it was the last time she saw her mother, the last time her family was together.  Then the man said something Kate couldn't hear, and it was as if a heavy curtain was drawn around her mind, obliterating the man in the doorway, the light, her mother, everything."  (pp. 2-3)

"What...happened?" Emma asked.  "Where are we?""
"I can answer that."  Michael's face was flushed with excitement, his words tumbling all over themselves.  "We're in Abraham's picture!  Well, not in the actual picture itself; that would be ridiculous"--he allowed himself a quick chuckle--"we've been transported to the time and place the photo was taken."
Emma stared at him.  "Huh?"
Don't you see?  It's magic!  It has to be!"
"There's no such thing!"
"Really?  Then how'd we get here?"
Emma looked about and, seeing no clear way to argue, wisely changed the subject.  "So where are we then?" (p. 48)

"I do not enjoy playing the grump!  But I must cure you of your excessive love of me!"  The Countess picked up the doll that Annie had dropped and smoothed his patchy hair.  "So, the word has already been sent to your men.  They'll find me what I'm looking for, or beginning this Sunday--I do hate Sundays, they're so dull--beginning this Sunday, your town will lose a child each week I have to wait."  (pp. 60-61)

""But I would like to give you a word of warning."  He leaned forward in his chair.  "There are places in this world that are different from all others.  Almost like separate countries.  A forest here, an island there, part of a city--"
"A mountain range," Kate said.
"Yes," Dr. Pym said.  "Sometimes a whole mountain range.  Cambridge Falls and all that surrounds it is such a place.  Now, the town itself is quite safe.  But do not go deeper into the mountains.  There are dangers there you cannot possibly imagine."  (pp 73-74)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Friday, May 13, 2011

REVIEW: Abandon (Book One of The Abandon Trilogy)

Cabot, M.  2011.  Abandon.  New York:  Point.

304 pages.

On the outset, The Goddess Test and Abandon have a lot in common.  Released within weeks of one another, both new series play with the myth of Persephone.  Both involve teenage girls moving to new towns with their moms, coming to terms with the possibility of someone's death, and dealing with the romantic entanglements of the Lord of the Underworld, Hades.  Excuse me, Henry.  Or John.  Both are series.  And both have left me feeling "meh."

Appetizer:  Pierce died.  Or had a near death experience a couple of years ago.  Since then, she hasn't been the same.

She remembers what it was like to die, where she went.  And she is haunted by the boy she met there, John.  She would question the reality of her experiences, but she knows John is real.  He left her a necklace to protect her.  It changes colors depending on who she is with (a mood-necklace?  Srsly?  Please try harder, Meg Cabot.  I think you are capable of better.).  Despite the fact that Pierce and her mother have moved to Isla Huesos, she is still haunted by John and the fact that he wants to take her back to the underworld.

While Cabot's writing is easy to engage with and Pierce is an interesting character, I had some trouble with the beginning of the book.  It felt like Cabot was trying to create such an air of mystery about Peierce's past and kept alluding to an accident, an incident, a near death experience and to a Him who was haunting her, I had trouble keeping all of these occurrences straight, especially as the narration jumped through time to share about several of them.  Now, the experience of trying to piece together Pierce's past wasn't so frustrating that I felt like putting the book down, but it was more confusing than I think Cabot intended it to be.  Around page 40 or 50, the plot evened out and it become easier for me to figure out when Pierce was narrating about.

At that point I was all ready to enjoy the story, but then some other aspects of the plot didn't ring true to me.  Pierce is driven to protect her friends.  I'm fine with that.  But since she's the new girl to Isla Huesos, her decision to hatch a plot to investigate a bunch of popular kids--or A Wingers--to help her cousin and a girl she'd known for only a couple of hours and hadn't even had an extensive or deep conversation with felt very forced.  Plus, none of these tensions (or many others) were in any way resolved by the cliff-hanger-y ending of the book.  I was left feeling very "meh" towards the book.  And like Cabot should have done another round of revision before publishing the book.

John is meant to be the tempting bad boy.  Cabot does a good job of presenting that, but I was still more than a little skeeved out by his relationship with Pierce.  With Pierce's first experience with being dead and talking with him, it becomes clear that he is expecting Pierce to make choices without having all the information about what she is agreeing to or without knowing the consequences of those choices.  It was one more small step above manipulation.

I liked the idea of this retelling.  I like the way Cabot explores the question of death.  But over all, I felt like the actual story fell short of what it could have been.

I repeat, "meh."

The second book in the series is called Underworld.  I'll probably read it.  Not because I expect it will redeem Abandon's weaker plot-points, but because it's related to my dissertation topic and I feel obligated.

Dinner Conversation:

"Anything can happen in the blink of an eye.  Anything at all.
A girl is laughing with her friends.
Suddenly, a crater splits apart the earth.  Through it bursts a man in an ink black chariot forged in the deepest pits of hell, drawn by stallions with hooves of steel and eyes of flame.
Before anyone can shout a warning, before the girl can turn and run, those thundering hooves are upon her.
The girl isn't laughing anymore.  Instead, she's screaming."  (p. 1)

"So who cares what happened to Persephone?  Compared to what happened to me, that's nothing.
Persephone was lucky, actually.  Because her mom showed up to bail her out.
No one's coming to rescue me."  (p. 2)

"Do you want to go someplace else?" he asked.  "Someplace away from here?  Someplace warm?"
"Oh," I said, feeling a rush of relief.  He'd realized there'd been a mistake.  HE was going to fix it.  I was going home.  "Yes, please."
And then I blinked.  Because that's what human beings do, especially when they've been crying.
But when I opened my eyes again, I wasn't home.  I wasn't standing on the shore of the lake anymore, either.
And what I'd been hoping was the end of the nightmare I'd been going through turned out to be just the beginning.  (p. 53).

"He pulled out one of the thronelike chairs.  "You must be tired.  Won't you sit down?  And I'm sure you must be hungry."
It wasn't until he said it that I realized I was.  Just looking at the mounds of ripe peaches, crisp apples, and glistening grapes in those gleaming silver bowls--not to mention the cool clear water in those crystal goblets, so cold I could see the condensation dripping from the sides--well, it wasn't easy to stay where I was, especially feeling as wobbly on my feet as I did.
But my dad had warned me about situations like this.  Maybe not this exactly.  But not to accept food--or drinks--from strangers.
Especially young male strangers.  (p. 57).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

REVIEW: The Goddess Test

Carter, A.  (2011).  The Goddess Test.  Don Mills, Ontario:  Harlequin Teen.

293 pages.

Appetizer:  Kate Winters's mother is dying.  They move to Eden, a town in the upper peninsula of Michigan where her mother had lived when she was younger.  While Kate wants nothing more than to spend every possible minute with her deteriorating mother, several of her new classmates insist on drawing her out, including the head cheerleader, named Ava.

When Ava is killed in a trick she attempted to play on her, Kate finds herself making a deal with a mysterious boy named Henry to save Ava's life that is reminiscent of the deal Persephone experienced with the Greek god Hades.

As part of the deal, Kate must spend six months of each year with a seemingly early twenty-something man, named Henry.  She soon learns that she will face tests to see if she is worthy of being Henry's wife and gaining immortality.  Thus, the goddess test.

So, out there in the internetz world, there are a lot of mixed reviews of The Goddess Test.  Some are saying it's a wonderful engrossing spin on bringing Greek mythology into the present world.  Others are outraged, saying Carter completely ignores traditional mythology and attempts to infuse it with Christian values.

The question is really about how much can an author can play with the figures of myth.  Some like to maintain traditional versions (Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson series) others completely ignore a lot of the history (Ross Collins and his Medusa Jones).

I felt like Carter was somewhere in the middle.  *A kind-of spoiler that could lead to a major spoiler for the book (if that makes any sense)* Kate meets a lot of the Greek gods as soon as she arrives in Eden, Michigan, but doesn't realize their true identities.  They all have fake names (which, as someone who is terrible with names, didn't confuse me at all.  Nope.)  I found the list explaining who was who that is at the back of the book before I even began reading.  This meant that as I read about various characters acting in different ways that didn't fit with their true Greek identities.  (Artemis in charge of the dresses?!  Frak, no!)  *End the kind-of spoiler for the end of the book*  I felt like Carter was creating a monomyth, combining Christian themes and beliefs with traditional myth to explain the world.  I think this is becoming more and more popular in YA and children's lit.

When I first started reading the book, Monica had posted a comment to my Goodreads account asking why I wanted to read it.  We had the following phone conversation, re-constructed to the best of my failing memory.

Shel:  So, The Goddess Test?
Monica:  Don't read it!
Shel:  Why not?  I'm enjoying it so far.
Monica:  They make Hades a virgin!  A VIRGIN!!!!!!
Shel:  ...I don't think I've gotten to that part yet.

(In retrospect, Monica may not have freaked out so much about the Greek god of the Underworld being a virgin quite that much.)

Monica and I then had a very intelligent conversation about gender roles in relation to how modern heroes like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Kate are being presented and how Percy gets to go off and have adventures to save the world and fight a war (funsies!) while Kate is not the toughest of ladies (boo!).  (Seriously, I felt like she was an emotionally strong character, but physically she rivals Bella Swan in terms of being a distressed damsel.  Kate's legs can barely support her more often than a baby hasn't learned to crawl or walk yet.  Get it together, girl.)

Plus, Riordan is more conservative in the way he presents the Greek gods, etc.  We are geniuses (not at all focused on how a several thousand-year-old attractive young man may still be a virgin).

Maybe we should have used this book as a literary feast...that is if I could have convinced Monica to give it a second chance.

I really loved the eerie tone of the story that Carter set up.  I felt it matched Kate's mood perfectly.  And since the book I'd read before this one was poorly written, The Goddess Test felt like a breath of fresh air.  That is, until I hit about page 40ish, when Ava was very randomly killed.  That was a moment where I had to literally exclaim "WTF," while I read in Thompson Library's lovely silent reading room.  I got glared at.  I got glared at reeeeeeeal good.

This would become a cyclical experience as I kept reading.  I'd be enjoying the tensions and internal landscape of Kate's characterization that then something completely random would happen plot-wise that would make me mumble "WTF?"

There were also quite a few moments throughout out the book were I was left feeling like it was a little ridiculous...or just not that clever.  Throughout the story, Kate is supposedly in danger, but she doesn't seem all that concerned.  And when there are threats to her life, they aren't that clever.  Given the way that the story presents the supposed assassin (as someone who has killed countless girls previously, no matter the ways Henry attempts to protect her), I would have expected something more impressive than what is in the story.

Overall, I'm declaring that I enjoyed the book.  Some of the plot developments seemed forced or not foreshadowed or explored enough.  I definitely liked the tensions over death and the fact that the story was set in Michigan.

Michiganders forever!!!!!!

When does the second book Goddess Interrupted come on?  (And is it an intentional play on the title Girl, Interrupted?  Will Kate be committed to an insane asylum where she befriends some of the other patients and comes to terms with the way society has treated her while exploring the nature of reality with a beautiful Greek god running around in the background?  I could probably get into that.  Just saying.)

Dinner Conversation:

"I spent my eighteenth birthday driving from New York City to Eden, Michigan, so my mother could die in the town where she was born.  Nine hundred and fifty-four miles of asphalt, knowing every sign we passed brought me closer to what would undoubtedly be the worst day of my life.
As far as birthdays go, I wouldn't recommend it" (p. 12).

"What would you do to have her back?"
I struggled to understand what he was saying.  "Back?"
"Back in the condition she was in before she jumped in the water.  Alive."
In my panic, I already knew my answer.  What would I do to have Ava back?  What would I do to stop death from tightening its chokehold over the remaining shreds of my life that it hadn't already stolen?  It had marked my mother and was waiting in the wings to take her from me, inching closer every day.  She might've been ready to give up, but I would never stop fighting for her.  And like hell I was going to let it claim another victim right in front of me, especially when it was my fault Ava was here in the first place.  "Anything."  (p. 45)

"Wandering listlessly through the halls, I ran my hand across each surface I passed, staring blankly ahead into the darkness.  Tonight marked the end of the only chapter in my life I'd ever known, and I didn't know how to live in the emptiness ahead" (p. 63).

"Think--you know the myth, do you not?  Who was Persephone?  What was she?"
Fear stabbed at me, cutting me from the inside.  If what he claimed was true, then he'd kidnapped Persephone and forced her to marry him, and no matter what he said, I couldn't help but wonder if he would try to do the same to me.  But the rational part of me couldn't look past the obvious.  "You really think you're a god?  You know that sounds crazy, right?" (p. 101).

"Why the tests?" I said.  "Why are they necessary?"
"Because," he said.  "The prize is not something we give out lightly, and we need to make sure it is something you can handle."
"What's that?"
"Immortality."  (p. 106).

Tasty Rating:  !!!


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